I recently visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia which houses one of the finest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the world. As I wandered through the corridors of Renoirs and Matisses, I felt my heart expand, as it often does in the presence of such abundant beauty. I was particularly captivated by the portraits the artists had made of friends and patrons. These were not conventionally beautiful portraits. They were completely unlike the glamour shots and selfies prised in today’s culture. Rather, they sought to convey something of the beauty of the souls of their subjects.
As I was pondering this transubstantiation of soul to canvas, I noticed that the museum was filled, not just with beautiful paintings, but with something even more extraordinary, but which I had never noticed before. The museum was filled with people! Real people, as beautiful as the people in the paintings. They milled about, taking snapshots with their phones, resting wearily on couches, or looking around for something they might know, a Monet or Van Gough, some perplexed, some bored, some enraptured. And for a moment, I felt as if I had been transformed into an artist myself, seeing all this beauty in the strangers around me, beauty that cried out to be noticed and immortalised, if only I had the genius express it.
We go to museums to see beautiful paintings. But the paintings are not half as beautiful as the people who come to stare at them, the ordinary folks we ignore, avoid, judge, or resent. Dorothea Lang once said that the purpose of a photograph is to teach us how to look at the world. That day at the Barnes Foundation I suddenly understood what she meant. It’s not that a photograph teaches us to look at the world as if through the lens of a camera, with a discriminating eye. Rather, a great photograph or painting teaches us to look at the world with the eyes of an artist. Not merely to appreciate, but to see, feel and understand people and things as they truly are. And all people are beautiful. That is the truth that gleams beneath the encrusted layers of culture and prejudice that disguises and distorts the world around us.
Glamour vs Beauty
I’ve always been intoxicated by the glamour of Hollywood, the sexy, airbrushed perfection of glossy magazines. Then I ran across the work of photographer Andy Gotts who specialises in celebrity portraiture. I was astounded at how beautiful these stars could be even under a harsh, penetrating light, with wrinkles highlighted rather than photoshopped away. His photos reveal both strengths and vulnerabilities, perfections, flaws, and quirks. It reminded me of a favourite quote from Joseph Campbell: “Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love – and I mean love, not lust – is the imperfection of the human being. “
The Beauty of Strangers
In an interview with Krista Tippet on the On Being Podcast, Evangelical writer Richard Muow spoke of the importance of noticing the beauty of people who are different than ourselves.
In affirming the stranger, we are honouring the image of God. Every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is a work of art. Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person.
Richard Muow is a conservative evangelical, opposed to SSM and everything you would expect from someone of his political persuasion. Yet he is an extraordinarily loving person, even towards gays and liberals. When he sees people he doesn’t agree with, he doesn’t necessarily feel the need to find common ground with them. Rather, he sees their differences as an exercise in “art appreciation.” Common ground is overrated. So is agreement and understanding. People are different and there is beauty in difference itself. It is in our appreciation for strangeness that we can come together in love.
The Beauty of Strangeness
In another On Being podcast, a guest spoke of the supremely beautiful thoraxes of the bugs we loathe: cockroaches, ants, spiders, each one an extraordinary work of engineering beyond anything mankind has ever come close to designing. The body of an ant is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” infinitely more magnificent than the sun in the sky. For what is the sun except a simple ball of burning hydrogen? But a tiny bug, easily squashed under foot, reminds us that the universe doesn’t just expand outwardly into unimaginable distances, it also expands inwardly, in unfathomable complexity. William Blake’s poem The Book of Thel touches on this theme. In the poem, a beautiful young girl encounters a poor, neglected worm, who speaks these words to her:
“Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed;
My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,
But He that loves the lowly, pours His oil upon my head,
And kisses me, and binds His nuptial bands around my breast,
And says: ‘Thou mother of My children, I have loved thee
And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.’”
The daughter of beauty wip’d her pitying tears with her white veil,
And said: “Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.
That God would love a Worm, I knew, and punish the evil foot
That, wilful, bruis’d its helpless form; but that He cherish’d it
With milk and oil I never knew…
- Have you had moments of human “art appreciation?”
- Do you find beauty in the strangeness and differentness in other people, apart from whether or not you can understand them or find any common ground?
- Do you think bugs are beautiful?
 I love how this poem unwittingly touches on the beauty of evolution, for the worm is our literal ancestor, the mother of all God’s children.